The team’s moves this offseason haven’t addressed the concern Rivera has mentioned during his past two news conferences: finding a linebacker with the coverage skills of Kevin Pierre-Louis, who signed with the Houston Texans in free agency.
“We would like to replace the KPL loss more so than anything else,” Rivera said of the linebackers April 1.
The addition of a linebacker with coverage skills would be key for this young and improving defense. The increased use of tight ends and running backs in NFL passing games has put pressure on defenses to find a counter, and teams often attacked Washington’s linebackers in coverage early last year.
But the team didn’t address the position in a prominent way in free agency, signing a depth inside linebacker (David Mayo) and re-signing two special-teams players (Jared Norris and Jordan Kunaszyk). Washington could be planning to see how the draft plays out first because, if it doesn’t address the position in the draft, there are remaining free agents, including Kwon Alexander and K.J. Wright, whom Washington could sign without affecting the team’s compensatory pick formula.
It seems Washington wanted to retain Pierre-Louis. Before free agency, Rivera said, “I’d love to have Kevin back,” and afterward, he called the 29-year-old’s departure “a little bit of a disappointment . . . especially because of the growth that we saw.”
Pierre-Louis was uneven last season, struggling at times and seeing his snaps decline steadily before he suffered a season-ending ankle injury in December, but Rivera wasn’t shy in expressing his support. Yet in the end, Pierre-Louis signed with the Texans on a two-year deal worth up to $7 million — which is really a one-year deal for roughly the same amount he made last season (about $3 million).
One of Washington’s options to fill the void at linebacker is Khaleke Hudson. The second-year linebacker has a similar build to Pierre-Louis at 6 feet, 220 pounds and often played in coverage at Michigan. He played only 51 snaps last season, but it’s possible the team saw enough to feel comfortable taking a chance on him going into this season.
The other option is the draft. If the top five quarterbacks go early and Washington stays at No. 19, it could look for an off-ball linebacker. The position is deep this year with four potential first-round picks: Penn State’s Micah Parsons, Notre Dame’s Jeremiah Owusu-Koramoah, Tulsa’s Zaven Collins and Kentucky’s Jamin Davis.
Many draft analysts are projecting Parsons to be the top pick of those four, often before Washington’s selection in the first round. Davis has the size and speed for the role and has risen up analysts’ draft boards in recent months. Collins has elite athleticism for his size — 6-5, 259 pounds — but experts vary on how well he holds up in coverage. Pro Football Focus’s Mike Renner sees an immediate fit for Owusu-Koramoah, who’s smaller, quicker and more versatile than Collins, playing linebacker, safety and slot corner for the Fighting Irish.
“Similar to Isaiah Simmons last year, JOK won’t be a plug-and-play [middle] linebacker between the tackles,” Renner wrote. “What he is, though, is a defense’s answer to a modern offense. His flexibility could be invaluable to a creative defensive coordinator.”
ESPN analyst Matt Bowen said he thinks Collins would fit Washington well because he has elite traits.
“He’s a really high-ceiling prospect, and that’s what you want if you’re drafting in the first round, especially the top 20,” he said in an interview. “You want someone with a high ceiling who is not maxed out, that you can develop in ... your own strength program in the NFL and watch them develop under your coach.”
In the second or third round, the team could find fits in LSU’s Jabril Cox, Ohio State’s Justin Hilliard or Missouri’s Nick Bolton. Cox is considered perhaps the best true coverage linebacker in the draft but not as athletic or explosive as others. Hilliard has struggled with injuries, and NFL Network’s Daniel Jeremiah noted that, while Bolton is a physical, instinctual middle linebacker, he can be liable against the pass.
“I love Bolton's speed and energy, but he does need to improve in zone coverage,” Jeremiah wrote. “If he polishes that aspect of his game, he could emerge as a top-tier starter at the next level.”
The position — and perhaps these names — are worth the attention of Washington fans as the draft approaches. Recently, Rivera was telling a story to illustrate the cohesion of the new veteran executives in the team’s front office and reinforced the notion by saying, “We were talking about a specific linebacker . . .” Now it’s up for those executives to find the right one.
Nicki Jhabvala contributed to this report.